Saturday, June 13, 2009

Four More Book Reviews

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period
by Gennifer Choldenko
Recommended Ages: 10+

The author of the Newbery Honor Book Al Capone Does My Shirts is back with another touching, funny, thought-provoking book about family, school, and social issues. This time the narration is split between two characters' points of view: a rich white girl named Kirsten, and a poor black boy named Walk who has a scholarship to attend her school. By the end of the book they find out they have a lot more in common than you might expect.

Kirsten is insecure and unhappy. Her parents are fighting all the time. She is losing her best friend to a clique of mean, popular girls. And since unhappiness makes her hungry, she's been gaining weight. Every day at school seems to expose her to a fresh humiliation. Oddly enough, the few people whose company makes her happy are the misfits, the scholarship students like Walk and his best friend Matteo.

You'll cheer Kirsten along as she concocts a plan to protect Matteo from the evil of a girl named Brianna Hanna-Hines -- you know the type, don't you? It's interesting that the cutest girl in seventh grade is such a villain. It's also interesting how deeply real the members of Kirsten's family are, flaws and all, from her embarrassingly funny sister to her almost awful mother. For a healthy, bright, privileged girl, Kirsten has a lot of challenges to work through.

But Walk has even more. Brilliantly gifted, hard-working, and a natural-born leader, he attracts people to himself without even trying. Meanwhile, on the inside, he is constantly fighting a crusade for civil rights. His charming personality covers a hot streak of anger about all the ways he is treated differently because of his race. His single mom worries about him, worries about his secretive cousin and all the kids he hangs out with, and worries most of all about keeping the secret that is about to break open and change his life.

Readers young and old will laugh, wince, and warm to Kirsten's first-person and Walk's third-person narrative. Set in a world of high-priced private schools that, for most of us, is as remote as "the Rock" in Al Capone Does My Shirts, this book opens our eyes and opens our hearts to a pair of lovable kids and their memorable, but maybe not-so-unique, problems.

Genius Squad
by Catherine Jinks
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sequel to Evil Genius, fifteen-year-old computer whiz Cadel Piggott tries to put the Axis Institude of World Domination behind him. But it's hard. Since his father, criminal mastermind Prosper English, refuses to acknowledge their relationship, there is no record of where Cadel comes from. Australia doesn't want him. The USA won't take him. Even if Prosper claims him, that would only mean being deported to a miserable Scottish sheep farm and the custody of his only surviving relative.

Meanwhile, Cadel lives in a limbo known as the Australian foster-care system. Lately, this means dealing with a foster brother whose nickname, Mace, is as violent as his personality. Even Saul, the Canadian-born policeman in charge of Cadel's witness-protection detail, and Fiona, his social worker, are hard put to protect him. Cadel and best friend Sonja, whose severe cerebral palsy means she needs special care, just want to find a place where they can be safe together.

When such a place suddenly turns up, Cadel should be suspicious. But it's not hard to be disarmed when he knows Clearview House really is too good to be true. On the surface, it seems to be a halfway house for troubled teens like himself, with facilities for a disabled kid like Sonja. Below the surface -- literally -- is a secret "War Room" full of computers (another plus for Cadel). The staff and residents are a "Genius Squad" of cyber-spies, secretly digging for evidence against a sinister corporation called GenoME, part of the same criminal empire that ran the Axis Institute. Unable to resist the offer of a safe place to live with Sonja, unlimited time on a state-of-the-art computer, and a chance to fight evil, Cadel accepts Clearview House's offer... even though it means lying to the people who are trying to protect him.

Keeping Saul and Fiona in the dark about Genius Squad proves increasingly tricky. It's all Cadel can do to hide the War Room and the activities of his housemates, even at the best of times. But when Mace comes after him, the deception becomes harder to keep up. Harder still when Cadel's old school-friend Gazo Kovacs turns up and needs to be persuaded to cooperate with the police. Harder still when another ex-Axis student attempts to assassinate Prosper English in prison. Hardest of all when Cadel's snooping uncovers a GenoME plan to finish Prosper off.

Evil as his father is, Cadel doesn't want him killed. But this concern becomes a different kind of fear when Prosper escapes from prison and tracks down Cadel with terrifying ease. The remainder of the book is thus a duel of wits between a seasoned criminal genius and his one-time protegé who is trying to go straight. On his side Prosper has a network of henchmen, including a master of disguise and more than a fair share of traitors; plus he has a hostage, a diabolical plan, and a gun. Cadel only has wits, desperation, and one other weapon bad guys never seem to understand: a heart full of love.

This could be a liability when he is in the power of a crafty crook who wants to form Cadel in his image, and when the people Cadel loves the most are at risk. But it could also be the best hope for a boy who has been raised, from an early age, to look for spectacular ways to hurt people. Maybe he can fight back against the man who did this to him without sinking to his level. Maybe he can get everyone out of this alive. And maybe he can even find love and happiness that are not twisted by wicked plans. Only one thing is certain. If the excitement and emotional turmoil of this adventure don't wear you out, you'll be eager to read the third book in this trilogy, The Genius Wars, available in Australia in November 2009 and in the US in 2010.

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Ages: 10+

The lore of King Arthur and his knights has generated a lot of great literature since the Middle Ages: literature in Middle English, Latin, French, Welsh, and even German. Sir Thomas Malory's classic Morte d'Arthur stands at the crossroads between all this original song and legend and the modern poetry and prose inspired by it. Malory selected and organized many of the earlier scraps, stitching them together in a single work. Since then, many writers have tried to improve on this work, either by bringing in threads Malory had left out, or by smoothing out conflicting details, or by weaving separate stories into a more cohesive whole; or they have simply done homage to it in their own creative style.

The result is such a vast, rich body of Arthurian literature that one could make a lifelong study of it. I've been tempted to do this myself, after reading books about Merlin and Arthur from such authors as T. H. White, Mary Stewart, T. A. Barron, and Gerald Morris. But the problem is: where should one begin? Stewart's romances veer in a disctinctly adult direction. Though Barron and Morris both write for younger readers, theirs too are creative novels that merely take the folklore as their starting point. And while White's retelling is quite faithful, only the first part of it (The Sword in the Stone) is aimed at the Disney set. If I were a parent or teacher who wanted to introduce the legends of Camelot to an interested child, where should I turn? If I were a kid thinking about starting that lifelong study of Arthur, where should I begin?

I should begin with Roger Lancelyn Green's bestseller of 1953, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Why? Because it's told in clean, crisp, modern prose that, at the same time, piques the senses with moments of beautiful description and the slightly archaic phrasings that make you think, "This is the real thing!" Because it faithfully follows not only Malory but many other ancient sources, as the Author's Note briefly and frankly explains. And because no one is better at pulling together a huge and complex body of literature into a single, sensible story than the author of Tales of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy.

Lancelyn Green must have done a colossal amount of research in writing this book. He must have had either a mastery of many languages or access to excellent translations and summaries. He must have applied a truly massive intellect to selecting, arranging, and adapting all these stories so that we could read them as one story. But in his retelling, he never waves his labors, his linguistic skill, or his super-smarts in our face. He seems rather to step out of the way, and to let the story itself confront us with its own beauty and power.

I don't know how he managed all this, but I know why. Roger Lancelyn Green was a close friend of C. S. Lewis -- so close, indeed, that without his support the Chronicles of Narnia might never have been published. When he saw what Lewis and Tolkien were doing to raise up children's literature, he decided to do the same with the tales of Arthur and his court. Decades of bestseller status bear witness that his attempt succeeded. And though by no means the last word on Arthur, it remains a choice contender for the first word in your lifelong enjoyment of one great story.

The Adventures of Robin Hood
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Ages: 10+

In his customary Author's Note "as to the sources from which his material is derived," Roger Lancelyn Green complains that there isn't much literature about Robin Hood. This claim might shock you. But, apart from oral tradition, the tales of Robin Hood go back only to a 16th-century verse romance, two plays by a lesser contemporary of Shakespeare, and an uneven collection of ballads published in the 18th century, plus a few other fragments and excerpts. To fill out his story, Lancelyn Green had to borrow from several novels and plays written between 1819 and 1926. "I have used all my sources mainly for the outline of the tales," the author says, adding that he tried to keep the dialogue as close to the old ballads as possible.

So the author of such books as Tales of the Greek Heroes and King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table was forced to take more than his usual dose of creative license as he united the whole, scattered tradition of Robin Hood into one well-structured story. Nevertheless, I'm sure you'll recognize the enduring stories gathered in this book. Not only fans of Scott and Tennyson, but virtually all freedom-loving people, particularly in the English-speaking world, know of the merry band of outlaws who hid in Sherwood Forest, except when called upon to compete in archery tournaments, do feats of derring-do, steal from the rich, give to the poor, etc.

Lancelyn Green follows the general consensus of Robin Hood folklore in placing him in the time of King Richard I, the Lion Heart, who went away on a crusade and landed in prison on his way home. With the king thus indisposed, his wicked brother Prince John seized power and instituted a corrupt reign of terror, aided by such cronies as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisborne, and the Bishop of Peterborough. In these days the old Saxon lords were resisting their new Norman overlords. Prince John raised funds for himself by making outlaws of the wealthier Saxons and seizing their lands; or by selling political and churchly offices to his crooked friends, who would then repay him by imposing harsh taxes on the people.

Those who had been made outlaws, even on unjust grounds, lost all legal rights, including the services of the church. So it happened to Robert Fitzooth, the Earl of Huntingdon, who as a Saxon and a supporter of the rightful King Richard, fell into disfavor with Prince John. Betrayed by his servant Worman, Robert is outlawed in the middle of his wedding to Maid Marian. With his faithful followers he flees into the forest of Sherwood and becomes a gentleman robber named Robin Hood.

In the adventures that follow, Robin enlarges his merry band by saving many likely lads from being persecuted by the Prince, the Sheriff, and their ilk. He sets out to break all the unjust laws in order to preserve the just ones, to fight the vile usurper while hoping that good King Richard will pardon him when he comes home. He also converts several fierce opponents into his best friends by fighting them to a draw in single combat. One weakness of these tales is this seeming repetition, as Robin meets not one, not two or three, but four or five of his merriest men in a blur of quarterstaves. Nevertheless, no reader can fail to be entertained by the witty remarks and saucy rejoinders that accompany these duels, nor by the close scrapes and narrow escapes Robin and his fellows go through. In masculine daring and athletic resourcefulness, their adventures have few equals; in wit and humor, in dashing honor, in affection and loyalty and joy of living, these heroes have no equal at all.

One must be prepared when one lives a rough life in the forest, such as boy scouts only dream of. Be prepared to accept a lot of running about in disguise, with all manner of improbable results. Be prepared for suspense and horror -- including an eerie encounter with a witch. Be prepared for sometimes gruesome violence. Be prepared for a moment of senseless rage in which Robin Hood cold-bloodedly kills fifteen men. And be prepared for an ending full of tender pathos, an ending which may leave you sighing and wiping your cheeks. Old-fashioned as the Robin Hood legends are, they still appeal directly to the hearts and values of today's reader. And no one has done a better job arranging them for young readers to enjoy than Roger Lancelyn Green.

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